(Part 1) The Philosophy of History: Professor Bart Ehrman’s New Course Comparing and Contrasting The Apostle Paul With The Historical Jesus

“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. (Gal 2:21).”

The title here is interesting.  It names the philosophy of history on a faith topic.  What is The Philosophy of History?  What is Philosophy.  One of the great Philosophers, thinking back to the roots of Greek philosophy, named it in this way:

  • The courage of truth and faith in the power of the spirit is the primary condition of philosophical study;  man should honor himself and consider himself worthy of the highest [things]. He cannot overestimate the greatness and power of the spirit; the hidden essence of the universe contains no force which could withstand the courage of cognition; it must re-veal (un-hide) before it, and afford it the spectacle and enjoyment of its riches and its depths. (Hegel, Inaugural Address, Delivered at the University of Berlin Written: 22 October 1818)

So, if Hegel is right, Philosophy is going to have to do with a variety of ways of un-covering or un-locking what is hidden or sealed.  This agrees all the way back to the beginning of Greek philosophy with thinkers like Heraclitus who said inner principles/basic concepts love to hide (physis kryptesthai philei).  This is similar to what German thinkers call Grundbegriffe: fundamental principle, basic concept, or basic idea.  So, for example, we know a sock is a “whole” even though we don’t see “wholeness” or “unity” when we look at it.  Unity is there, but hidden.  What we can do is “unhide” the unity by tearing the sock, which makes “unity” stand forth “as a lost unity.” 

This kind of Philosophy thus is concerned with (1) the hidden basic concepts of beings (eonta – entities), whether they are trucks, trees, hallucinations, emotions, etc., and (2) how these hidden things can be un-hidden: method.  Professor Ehrman’s course is interesting for Philosophy of History because he is going to compare and contrast Paul with Jesus to re-veal information about the historical Jesus.

Traditionally, it has been very hard to distinguish Jesus from Paul because Paul is our oldest source, and our first Gospel Mark seems to have known Paul’s letters and is using Paul’s ideas.  For example, both Paul and Mark see the crucifixion and the resurrection as the basic concepts of the faith.  Ehrman is not daunted by this, and gives the following example:

  The Rich Man

  • 17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. You shall not defraud. Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

This passage cited by Ehrman is remarkable.  Here, in a gospel teaching the centrality of the crucifixion and resurrection, we have a story unit where Jesus says salvation comes through strictly observing the Law.  We know this fits in with what we know about Jesus because he says he has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it, make it stricter (eg., adultery is not just the sex act but even a lustful eye).  With this historical reasoning we seem to have stepped behind Paul via Mark to a Jesus who did not teach the necessity of his death and resurrection but strict observance of the law so people could be ready for the coming Kingdom.  Paul said he did not want to teach anything except Christ and him crucified.  Ehrman says for Paul, the apocalypse meant Jesus’ imminent return, while for Jesus it was the soon coming of the angelic Son of Man.

This is a bold move by Ehrman as it is challenging skeptics of historical information about Jesus.  One group Ehrman is always concerned about is the extreme minority position of the Christ Myth Theory, which is popular online.  Known as mythicists, they argue our earliest source Paul contains no biographical information about Jesus because Jesus never existed on earth, and the first gospel, Mark, is not historical but is a fictional parable.  See the video below time 12:00-15:28:

Ehrman wrote the first major work by a new testament specialist against the Christ Myth Theory back in 2011, the same time new testament specialist Dr. James McGrath was debating with mythicists on his blog:

What type of Philosophy do we have in mind when considering Philosophy of History?

Philosophy since its inception with the Greeks has been concerned with “what” its concepts are, and “how” they are being dis-closed.  For example, if we want to know the basic way a human is in the world, we note that if we hear a “living thing” at our feet and look down to see the creature only to realize it was just leaves in the autumn wind, this “mis-take” un-hides for us that our basic way of being in the world is “taking-as.”  What does this mean?  To experience a triangle as a triangle the mind needs to apply a rule to the entity in front of us of “enclosed figure with 3 straight sides.”  It is only on the basis of this can I encounter a triangle as a triangle and not just a random figure.  Now, to go further and really experience the triangle, we have to apply a stricter rule of “either right, equilateral, isosceles, or scalene.”  If we do this, consciously or unconsciously, the triangle we encounter can step forth in an exemplary sense as what it really is.  Also, we could not have the experience of beings that we do unless we had in view such things as variation/equality by the mind’s eye in order to encounter various things; a view of sameness/contrariety to encounter ourselves as self-same in each case; a view of symmetry and harmoniousness allow us to arrange and construct things; etc.

What is a philosophical way of thinking about the above notion of the “exemplary?”  How would we approach the question “What is a house?”  Would we get out a dictionary?  Let’s think: We generally say a mansion is an example of a house, but we also say “Now that’s a house!” – that the mansion is an exemplary house or house-ness incarnate, and so house-ness fully appears or presences through the mansion, is by contrast merely present in the average house, and presences deficiently in the broke down shack.  The Greek poet Homer meant this when he said the gods don’t appear to everyone in their fullness – and so a mansion might appear gawdy to someone, like the way the magnificent waterfall may seem like noise pollution to someone who lives near it (as opposed to a tourist).  Art and the artwork provide us with a good sense of what “the exemplary” entails.  Art and the artwork provide a means for rethinking the relationship between the universal (eg the general category house) and particular (eg this mansion), like the way an art piece is not just an example of art but launched and/or defined the Impressionism Art Period/Movement.  Analogously, not just examples of players but Larry Bird “mastered” basketball while Michael Jordan “redefined” basketball.

So, given this background of the kinds of things philosophy and history are interested in, and philosophy of history, with coming posts I’m going to look at Prof Ehrman’s 8 lectures on the divide between the historical Jesus and Paul to see how this analysis can help us understand who the historical Jesus was, how he differed from Paul, and how this method can coax Jesus out of hiding from behind Paul’s letters and the Pauline influenced gospels!

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